Friday, September 23, 2016

The myth of the 'weaker sex' lives on

I wrote this column in The Daily News in Halifax in 1990. I spent a lot of time, both before and since I wrote this, thinking of women's lives and how they have been misinterpreted and undervalued. The feminist writer, Dale Spender, wrote a book called There's Always Been A Women's Movement This Century.

This brought home to me that with a different slant and a different analysis, the lives of our mothers and grandmothers could be seen in a whole new light.

I would write some of this differently today but this is how I saw it in 1990.


How many times have you told friends, acquaintances, strangers at bus stops that, in your family, girls were encouraged to be strong and independent? How many times have you said, “my mother always told me I could be anything I wanted to be; I've never felt that I didn't have equal access to a good career and a decent life...”?

How many times have you expressed the novel idea that your mother and her sisters and their mother were the strong members of your family, the ones who held things together through thick and thin, who survived adversities without complaint, who displayed the kind of stamina and fortitude that you're now handing down to your daughters?

How many times did you think to yourself that your family was the exception?

I'm of the opinion that families with strong women are the rule rather than the exception and that the myth of “the weaker sex” is another part of the conspiracy that keeps women from fighting back against a system that keeps them down.

I think of so many ways that women's strengths are slighted – either by being taken for granted or scorned through derogatory attitudes towards “women's work.”

A few years ago, involved in my editing work, I came across this intriguing sentence in the minutes of a Women's Institute meeting: “It was decided to use the proceeds from the bake sale to buy our African family a goat.”

Well, no editor worth her paycheque is going to let that pass without finding out a little more. I found that this particular group had been supporting their family for some time in a program not unlike the foster child program except it included whole families. The women worked closely with international relief organizations and they had been told the goat would be easy to care for, wouldn't eat much and would provide milk and cheese for the family which could also be bartered for other special needs.

I checked with a few other groups and found that most women's organizations had, for years, been manoeuvring around governments and bureaucracies just as if they weren't there to provide people in other countries with life-supporting products but also with school supplies, hygienic provisions and things like eyeglasses, even children's toys.

I began to remember things from my own childhood: I remembered going door-to-door with my mother collecting woollen fragments and bits of fabric, packing it all in boxes, sending it away somewhere and seeing it come back, miraculously, as blankets. The blankets were sent “overseas,” along with more boxes of knitted wear, tonnes of it, it seemed, knit by my own auntie.

The women in my past – and in my present – don't expect any thanks for this kind of world's work. It's just as well as it usually goes unacknowledged.

There was another event that brought back some of the same memories. That was the time that a musician by the name of Bob Geldof organized a trans-Atlantic rock and roll concert called Live Aid. It ran on television over many hours and raised a huge amount of money for victims of famine in Africa.

In the months following the concert, Geldof was touted as a possible nominee for the Nobel Peace Prize; he was invited to Washington to give some advice to then American president, Ronald Reagan (that must have been some show); and he made an outspoken tour around the survival camps in Ethiopia, spouting opinions on the crisis at every stop among a multitude of cameras and microphones.

Now I have nothing against Bob Geldof – in fact, I kind of like him. I just think it's necessary to remind ourselves every five years or so that the concept of aid to the Third World was not invented recently and that for years, it's been alive and well in the church halls, parish centres, and rural living rooms of our nation.

Not only that, but why wasn't my auntie ever invited to Washington to give advice to a president, or why wasn't she ever offered a Nobel prize?

Oh well, she and my mother are no longer with us but many women continue their works for others – with or without the world's gratitude. Presidents, prime ministers and rock and roll singers come and go with their grandiose plans but I like to think that somewhere, a Women's Institute branch is saving the money from bake sales, bazaars and church suppers to buy an African family a goat.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016

Happy anniversary to Each New Day

I missed the first anniversary of Each New Day. My first post here was called Welcome to my day and it was published on September 8, 2015. I don't even have to say, "Wow, time flies!" because everyone knows that already.

In that first post, I explained briefly why I was starting this project.

One day back in the spring, I noticed that I was spending a lot of time taking part in discussions on Facebook. I was commenting here and there, leaving behind observations, some of which were researched, others that were well-thought-out and carefully written.

A few days later, I wanted to take another look at some of the things I'd written and I had no idea where to go to find them, so random was my commenting history. I was suddenly struck by how easily misplaced some of our thoughts are when they're part of just one of thousands of discussions by millions of people on Facebook.

That’s when I decided to start this space so that when I have something I think is worth saying, I’ll say it here and then I’ll always know where to find it!

I still leave comments on Facebook because I like to have conversations with friends but I'm more likely to avoid getting into discussions on serious issues with people I don't know very well. I do feel better about that.

The second reason I started this space was for self-improvement:

The other reason I’ve started Each New Day is that I plan to write here often (I almost said “every day” but that puts a lot of pressure on me) so it’s a way for me to practice self-discipline. I preach self-discipline a lot so it’s good for me to practice what I preach.

This is a good time to start a new project. The second most popular day in the calendar year for fresh starts is the day after Labour Day.

I've done quite well. I haven't written every day but I've come pretty close. I've written quite a lot more than every second day, for example.

I'm a night owl and I often write here late at night. I usually know what I'm going to write about and I sometimes start it earlier in the day but writing late at night has become a habit.

I do notice that my subject matter and style have changed over the year. When I started, I was often content with two or three paragraphs about something I had done or cooked or seen during the day. As time went on though, I feel I reverted to my days as a columnist. My pieces became longer and were often — not always but often — more serious and issue-oriented.

I also went back to memoir-style posts, stories of my childhood and youth which — is this surprising or not? — always attract the greatest number of readers.

The most-read post in the past year is one I wrote on June 8 and shared again a few days ago. It's called A secret lake — and a walk in the woods. It created a lot of Facebook conversation when it was first published and it continues to attract readers.

A runner-up is A little addition to our family — and how it happened, the story of how we adopted William when he was two days old.

William has been working and attending Community College since he graduated from high school but this month, he headed off to university where he's studying political science — an appropriate choice.

We're very proud of William for knowing when the time was right for him.

You readers also liked the story about things lost in the fire at the old house in Black River, Leaving our lives behind while the chaos continues; the recent story, A sweet romance in the summer of '61; and especially, the love story in three parts called Love is the sweetest thing. . ..

I confess, I'm never sure which pieces are going to strike some kind of popularity chord. I think that's a good thing because although I'm always happy to have lots of readers, I don't want to become ratings-driven. I might stop being honest and start doing research into key-words and algorithms. I'll just stick with the old-fashioned rule, "Write what you know" — and I hope you'll stick with me as we enter Year Two of Each New Day.

Thanks so much for being here.

Thursday, September 15, 2016

There was a time in this fair land when the railroad did not run

In the summer, William and a bunch of friends went to Montreal for Osheaga, the big music festival on the old La Ronde/Expo '67 site. They all got there by different modes of transportation — William drove up with a couple of guys in a van, leaving Halifax in the late evening and driving all night. Some of the other guys flew in or drove with other people. Once they got there, they all joined together and lived in a pre-arranged apartment.

They had a grand time at Osheaga. They had been at Evolve in New Brunswick just a couple of weeks before and I think if William had to choose, he might choose Evolve just because Osheaga was so big.

Here's a small part of the Osheaga crowd — a photo I borrowed off the Internet.

But it was great; they heard some good music and got lots of sun and enjoyed themselves a lot.

When it was over, some of the guys had to go home, including the ones that William had driven up with. But as it happened, William and a couple of his closest friends decided they'd like to have a couple more days in Montreal — and who wouldn't? So they settled in and did some sight-seeing and played tourist.

A few days later, he texted me. "Where do we get the train?" William has taken trains in Italy, France, Germany, Belgium and England. In any of those places, his question would have made perfect sense. I would look it up, tell him which station to go to, tell him what time the trains were leaving.

Unfortunately, in our country it's not simple. I told him to go to Central Station under the Queen Elizabeth Hotel, go to the ticket office and see what he could find out. It was Thursday.

When he got back to me, he said, "No train today. The train tomorrow is sold out."

I had checked it out by that time: departures from Montreal Wednesday, Friday and Sunday. Three trains a week.

I take this quite personally. This train — the Ocean, formerly the Ocean Limited — played a significant part in my life. I lived in Montreal as a young woman and I travelled back and forth on that train several times a year. I was on a first-name basis with the porters and the sleeping car staff.

This is one of my most-used photos, I'm sure you'll agree.

I use this one too for winter stories:

I not only travelled by train but I took people to the station and waved them off and I met people who were coming to visit.

The train was there and we assumed it would always be there.

People accuse former Prime Minister Stephen Harper of saying, "Give me 20 years and you won't recognize this country." But Stephen Harper didn't say that. It was Brian Mulroney — Prime Minister from 1984-1993 — who said that. I remember him saying it because I very clearly remember thinking, "Why wouldn't we want to recognize our country?"

Mulroney did a lot of damage to this country and one of the things he did was decimate our train service. In October of 1989, the New York Times reported it this way with the headline Trains To Be Cut In Canada.

Even today, all these years later, the details are shocking to me:

TORONTO, Oct. 4 — The Canadian Government said today that it would cut passenger train service by more than 50 percent nationwide, touching off bitter protests in a country that was stitched together by railroads in the 19th century and where trains and the people who ride them are the stuff of national folklore.

The cuts, from 405 trains a week to 191 in the heavily subsidized rail network, had been expected for months because of Government budget cuts. . .

The Government-owned Via Rail Canada Inc. would end up offering little more than skeleton service in wide areas of the Maritime Provinces, along Canada's Atlantic coast, and in the western provinces of Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia. Northern Ontario would be hard hit, too, as would parts of Quebec. . .

More than 2,700 of Via Rail's 7,300 employees would lose their jobs as a result of the cuts, but a confidential Via Rail report, copies of which were leaked to Canadian newspapers, said that nearly 60,000 Canadian jobs depended on passenger rail services, nearly 30,000 of them in tourism, and that many of these might be in jeopardy, too. . .

Mulroney said the cuts would be irreversible and he was right. In many places, the tracks were pulled up promptly. In other places, they've grown over with weeds poking up between the ties and the rails rusted and broken. He stressed, over and over, that this was all about money. We couldn't afford our trains.

But getting rid of the trains was not good transport policy. I'm sure the research has been done (I'm not going to look it up right now) that shows the loss of our freight trains and the vast increase in the use of tractor-trailers on the highways has not been a more efficient or a cleaner alternative.

As for passenger service, William's is only the most recent story. There are many stories throughout rural Canada where the loss of rail service went far beyond inconvenience.

William got a flight home to Halifax, by the way. It was cheaper than the train ticket would have been.

And that's a whole other story.

Friday, September 9, 2016

A sweet romance in the summer of '61

When I was telling you about William leaving home to go to university, it made me think about my own experience leaving home.

The summer before I left for Montreal was the last full summer I lived at my parents' house in Chatham, NB. I had decided to go into nursing and I knew that my life was changing course and there would be no turning back. I would be leaving early in September.

My boyfriend that summer was someone I had known for years but had never thought of in a romantic way. My mother had known him since he was a small boy. She was never able to become comfortable with the eccentric young man he had become.

When we started to "go around" together I, unlike my mother, enjoyed the person he had become. It's fair to say that he was not like anyone else in our small town; he had no desire to be and although he was not oblivious to what people thought of him, he didn't care. He was tall and skinny and wore thick glasses. He was very smart and more than capable of carrying on an intelligent and informed conversation but mostly, he didn't see the point.

He had a few friends whose interests were not unlike his. They engaged in intellectual pursuits — they read, played chess, invented things.



Today, they'd be called nerds or geeks. Or both.

We were the same age — 18 — but I had graduated a year before him because I had skipped grade two. We went to his graduation prom together. I wore a new prom dress although I didn't try to outshine the graduating girls. He wore a dark suit with a white shirt and tie and looked quite lovely. We had a sweet and memorable evening together and after that, we were pretty much inseparable as the summer days — and nights — wore on.

He wasn't interested in talking to many people but he talked to me. He also wrote — poetry and songs and stories. He was enigmatic — genuinely so. He wasn't faking. It wasn't always easy to know what he was talking about but it was an interesting challenge to listen to him or to read his latest work.

We spent hours together every day, taking long walks, sitting on the beach, reading, swimming. Often in the early evening, we'd go down and board the ferry that crossed the Miramichi from Chatham to Ferry Road.

(Photo courtesy of Our Miramichi Heritage Facebook group)

We would climb up to the upper deck and settle in next to the bridge. The Captain never seemed to mind because we'd often sit there for a few hours, several trips back and forth, enjoying the weather, each other's company, the legendary River.

Fred (Coonie) Smith, a well-known fellow in Chatham, had opened a burger joint/diner on Water St. at the bottom of King St. We often went there when we got off the ferry and sat at the counter. Fred was always glad to see us and we had some great conversations. He loved to talk and tell stories and he couldn't have found a better audience than we were.

We would walk home slowly after our visit with Fred and we would part company reluctantly.

Many times after we'd said our loving good-nights, I'd be lying in my bed and I'd hear the sweet sounds of his ukulele as he serenaded me under my bedroom window. He would sing his own songs, not always comprehensible, but I always loved them. I think — I hope — my mother was usually asleep when this happened. I would get up very quietly, sneak past their door and out through the kitchen and the back door and I'd meet him under my bedroom window.

One horrible night, I went out to meet him and it was cool and rainy so we came into the house. We went as quiet as two mice into the living room and settled happily on to the couch for a little more time together. At 4:30 in the morning, the phone rang loud and shrill in the quiet middle-of-the-night house. Mum answered; it was his mother who had got up in the night and discovered that he wasn't there. No, he wasn't. He was sound asleep on our couch with his arms innocently around me. I was also asleep, of course.

I guess I could say it hit the fan that night. I resented it — I think I still resent it — because it was such a beautiful and wholly innocent relationship and the parental reaction to it took some of the pure glow away from us. They were so angry they tried to forbid us from seeing each other — as if we were 12 — but we stood our ground and we remained two-against-the-cruel-world even though our time was running out.

The day I was leaving for Montreal, he wanted to come to the station and I insisted that he should against my mother's wishes. We sat sadly in the back seat of the car, holding hands, at a loss for words.

When we reached the station and were on the platform, he said he had to run an errand and he'd be right back. Now the Newcastle train station is on a street that runs across the top of the town — it's not really near to any shops. But those long legs were put to good use and he was back shortly before I was to board. He had picked up a magazine for me, said he knew I liked to have plenty to read when I travelled.

After I kissed my parents, he held me and whispered sweet nothings in my ear and told me how much he was going to miss me. I couldn't speak and I simply turned and boarded the train.

When we were about half-way to Bathurst, I pulled out the magazine he'd bought and began to leaf through it. I came across a small scrap of paper that said "I love you." As I flipped through the pages, I found more and more little notes. All of them said, "I love you." I was so sad.

Of course we kept in touch — he even came to Montreal and visited me in my residence — but our lives were very different. He went to university, I was living with a lot of pressure and I think, in the end, we just grew apart. His own life took some bizarre turns, at one point bordering on the tragic. Our paths crossed years later and he was still enigmatic and was living outside the strict rules of society but I think it was working for him.

Wherever he is, I hope if he ever thinks of the summer of 1961, it makes him smile and just for a few minutes, remember what it felt like to ride that ferry back and forth across the Miramichi on a soft summer evening.

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

A delicate blend of an ending and a beginning

Cape Breton is as beautiful as ever. The drive up Route 4 from the Causeway along the beautiful Bras d'Or Lake to Sydney is still one of the champions in the Nova Scotia scenery department.

Just a few weeks ago, I shared the story of William being born in Cape Breton and how we met him there and brought him to Halifax when he was not yet two days old. This week, he returned to Cape Breton as he and his girlfriend, Keisha, begin university life at CBU. We all drove up to celebrate new beginnings and we're all looking forward to the unfolding of this new chapter.

(They're wearing their new residence — Harriss Hall — t-shirts.)

They have both been working during the time between high school and the present and William's also been taking courses at Nova Scotia Community College (NSCC). He often groaned about those courses so you can imagine that he — and we — were gratified to find that the credits he gained at NSCC will migrate with him to CBU. It's a nice little head-start that he wasn't expecting.

Harriss is the newest of the residences at CBU. William and Keisha have nice rooms separated by a small foyer and they share a bathroom — nicer than using the communal bathrooms and showers. They have a cafeteria with excellent food — open all day — just an elevator ride away.

My friends wonder if I'm sad at the change in our lives. "Sad" is not the right word. It's an adjustment for our family — one that most families go through — and it feels natural. It prompts me to look back to when I left home and how differently I and my mother probably felt about it. I felt a little apprehensive about my future but mainly, I felt free as a bird and excited about my new status as an independent person. I would like to think that she saw it as an opportunity to expand her own life and interests — and maybe she did. She was busy and enjoyed her work — she was a teacher — and she was active in her church and her community.

It's probably a good sign if both parent and child accept this separation as a natural step in their ongoing relationship. It's a delicate blend of an ending and a beginning, a blurred line that results in a mix of emotions, all of them an ordinary and accepted part of life.

We're grateful for the experience.

Thursday, September 1, 2016

The summer of love — and then some

William and I are watching Aquarius — separately, but almost at the same time. We each have a small Samsung tablet and we recommend Netflix offerings to each other. This time, we happen to be on the same wave-length. He's a few episodes ahead of me but we can talk about it and he's careful not to give away any important plot lines.

Here's the IMDB description of the series:

Aquarius stars David Duchovny as Sam Hodiak, a seasoned homicide detective whose investigations dovetail with the activities of real life cult leader Charles Manson in the years before he masterminded the most notorious killings of a generation, the Tate-LaBianca murders. A small time but charismatic leader with big plans, Manson has begun to build up his "family", recruiting vulnerable young men and women to join his cause. Teaming up with a young cop who will help him infiltrate Manson's circle, Hodiak is forced to see things through the questioning eyes of someone who came of age amongst the current anti-establishment counterculture.

The show is described as "historical fiction" as it is inspired by Manson but not historically accurate. It also contains fictional story lines but in a period setting and it involves historical events, politics, music, and social issues of the era.

I tell William that it's hard to convey, even in a multi-episode series, the generational upheaval that took place in that era. Aquarius is set in 1968 — the summer of love — but there was a lot more than love happening that year. Trying to explain to William what it was like to live through it has fixed it more firmly in my own head.

I think of the Vietnam war at the centre. From that grew the massive anti-war movement which led to millions of young people turning their backs on their parents and on the "values" they had been instilled with since childhood. Their parents became the enemy and the way their parents lived — in the suburbs, amassing possessions, cultivating respectable careers — became a toxic existence to be wildly fled.

There was music, drugs, free love, long hair, back-to-the-land. All that was political but there was also movement politics that reached beyond the war. It was the time of Black Power, the Students for a Democratic Society. Feminism and environmentalism were growing out of those movements and out of pacifism.

And there was a dark side, of course. Young people turned their backs on the families that had born-and-bred them but they still craved the love and closeness of a family-like structure. Charlie Manson wasn't the only one who provided such a setting but he definitely became the most notorious.

I think the show does a very good job portraying Charlie. He's kind and cruel and has a depth that is believable and frightening. He's vulnerable and evil. He's magnetic and repulsive. He's played by a good actor — Gethin Anthony. I believe Gethin comes from Game of Thrones.

I was a young woman during this time and although I could completely understand and agree with the politics of the youth movements, I was also old enough to deplore the very poor choices that were made by so many. I did think of myself for awhile as a hippie. I went back to the land and wore flowing peasant dresses and drove everyone insane with my totalitarian nutritional decrees.

I did become a radical feminist — which I am to this day — and I think more positive than negative came out of the upheavals of the '60s.

I'm wondering if you weren't there, if Aquarius is too dark. The racism and the sexism are shocking and hurtful. The references made to gays — homosexuality was still illegal — are cruel and vicious. Charlie's method of recruiting and his treatment of his "family" are brutal. It's not clear to me yet whether the series will be able to show that breaking down the system that was in place and starting to build a new system was, in fact, a good thing to do.

It was a scary time but it was stimulating and exciting. It's interesting to be reminded of it.

Aquarius is running on Netflix.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Collectible Elvis bites the dust

Things occasionally happen around the house that, in the grand scheme of things, don't really matter but can still make you feel bad.

For example, I recently broke a bowl.

It wasn't a great bowl, not a family heirloom or anything, but it was a bowl I used most days and my heart sank when I dropped it. For a split second, I imagined myself gluing it back together — it broke into quite large pieces — but I've moved beyond that as a solution to a broken dish and I stoically swept it up and put it in the garbage.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, my new white blouse got put into the drier by mistake. The clothes would normally be on the clothesline but it was a showery day and so the drier was pulled into emergency use. I'm sure I assumed the blouse was a man-made fabric, just made for a drier but it turns out the blouse is 100% cotton. I knew as soon as I looked at it that it hadn't enjoyed its trip in the drier. It was the broken-dish-on-the-kitchen-floor feeling all over again.

As it happened, I gave it a little iron-therapy which may have stretched it out — it was the length that was affected — and although it might not be perfect, I think it will probably be wearable.

These are small things though and I mention them only to try to lead up to a comparison.

Because then, there's this:



Please look at this very closely. Click on it to enlarge. That's a 78 rpm record of early Elvis — on one side Blue Moon of Kentucky, on the other That's All Right. It's a classic and it's a victim of many moves and many boxes since it left my parents' basement many years ago. Our joint record collection has now been dealt with as we begin the marathon of trying to get rid of decades worth of stuff. This wasn't the only 78 that didn't make it but it was the most notable.

I went to some of the collectors' sites to see what they'd think of this record. The original recording of these two songs was on Sun Records with the yellow label. Someone would pay you a few hundred dollars for that one. By the time RCA Victor got its hands on it and put the black label on it, it lost value and you might get $50 for it. There's also more than one RCA Victor label and they're also considered to be different values.

I wasn't going for a payday anyway and would never have got around to sending it away to some collector in Tennessee or wherever. I just liked the idea of having a collector's item, even if I wasn't doing anything with it.

I can still listen to Elvis. Our music supply is, I guess, simpler to access nowadays. It's certainly more portable. This is the exact device I listen to music with. It's a few years old now so it's probably obsolete but it works really well and it runs on a triple e battery. It's tiny and easy, not nearly as cumbersome as a turntable and a stack of records.